The Rt. Rev. Edmond Lee Browning, the 24th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (1986-1997), who was unwavering in his commitment to the vision of a more compassionate and inclusive church, died on July 11 at his home in Dee, Oregon. He was 87 years old.
In his acceptance speech after his election as presiding bishop in September 1985 at the Convention Center in Anaheim, California, Browning articulated the phrase which captured the imaginations of many in the church of his era to the present day: “I want to be very clear – this church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts – the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.”
Widely regarded as a pastor with a deep personal faith, possessing a love for all people, with a strong commitment to peace and justice, Browning shepherded the Episcopal Church through a transformational and tumultuous era, characterized by some of the most divisive issues of the 20th century. Fueled by his instincts to hold the church together in tension as consensus emerged, Browning’s prophetic leadership made an indelible impact on the Episcopal Church and the world.
“Someone asked me how I want to be remembered,” he said in his address to the General Convention shortly before his retirement in 1997. “I hope I am remembered not just for what I professed, but because I worked for a church where there is respect and room for everyone.”
As presiding bishop, Browning made it a priority to identify with people and places filled with human suffering because he believed the church needed to be present there. Early in his administration, Browning endorsed the “Michigan Plan” — a major economic justice plan designed to address the needs of the poor in the nation. He visited coal miners in southwestern Virginia, and worked to expand the church’s ministries with Native Americans, forming a groundbreaking national committee made up solely of indigenous members of the church. He was also one of the first religious leaders to visit the “AIDS wards” in San Francisco, and was noteworthy for his compassion and support for those affected by HIV/AIDS.
Committed to gender equality, in 1989 Browning ordained the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, the first woman ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion. He also worked tirelessly for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, and advocated for healthy and balanced dialogue on issues related to sexuality throughout his term as presiding bishop. Committed to the eradication of racism, Browning was asked by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to represent the religious community at a press conference to announce the new proposed Civil Rights Act (1990), and made a pastoral visit to Los Angeles after the riots there in 1991. Under his administration, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church released “A Pastoral Letter on the Sin of Racism” in 1994.
A global citizen, Browning was one of the most widely travelled presiding bishops in history. A friend and ally of the retired archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, Browning pledged his full support to the anti-apartheid movement. He visited Panama and Central America early in his term in office to seek self-determination for the dioceses and countries there. As presiding bishop, Browning visited Japan, including to Hiroshima where he met victims of the nuclear bombing, and supported initiatives related to a nuclear-free Pacific. A staunch supporter of justice for the Palestinian people, he travelled many times to the Middle East, visiting refugee camps on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Toward the end of his term as presiding bishop, the Palestinian Authority presented Browning with the Palestinian Medal of Jerusalem in recognition of his advocacy.
A passionate proponent for peace with justice, Browning vigorously opposed the Persian Gulf War, sentiments he shared with then President George Bush. Though they had major political differences and differed on the moral integrity of the war, the two men remained in communication and shared a deep mutual respect.
Browning’s ecumenism was fueled by a deep desire for Christian unity, along with the hope that churches around the world could do more together to work for justice, peace, and human rights. During his term of office, Browning strengthened relations between the Episcopal Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, and found ways to partner with Christians across Eastern Europe in making the church a symbol of hope. He also met with the late Pope John Paul II, and discussed women’s ordination with him. Perhaps the ecumenical breakthrough of Browning’s career came when the General Convention of 1997passed the Concordat of Agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), whereby the two churches entered into full communion. Though not passed by the ELCA until after his retirement in 1999, Browning considered the historic agreement “a kairos moment for Christendom.”
Browning’s genial, unpretentious and collaborative leadership style also served him well in relation to his role among the other primates of the Anglican Communion. In addition to his friendship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Browning worked closely with Archbishop Michael Peers, then primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, to create new structures of collaboration between the two churches. Although Browning brought unpopular issues to meetings within the Anglican Communion, such as the ordination of women to the episcopacy and supporting the role of gay and lesbian people within the church, his ability to listen to other viewpoints and befriend persons with opinions different than his own, contributed to the high regard Anglicans around the world felt for him.
Throughout his long career, Browning was mostly known as “Ed” by young and old alike. His warm and approachable demeanor characterized his ministry. “I may fail some of you as a prophetic voice. I pray never to fail you as a pastor,” he said in his installation address in 1986. As chief pastor he worked to transform the culture of the House of Bishops as a spiritual community, and forged a new level of collaboration with the House of Deputies.
Previous to his election as presiding bishop, Browning’s life and ministry were shaped by his family and communities across the world. Born on March 11, 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, he graduated from the University of the South (B.A. 1952, B.D. 1954), and was ordained to the diaconate in 1954 and the priesthood in 1955 in the Diocese of West Texas.
In 1953, Browning married Patricia Alline Sparks. Together the couple had five children:
The Hon. R. Mark Browning (Ella) of Honolulu, HI: Ms. Paige Browning (Steve Winkle) of Hood River, OR; Dr. Philip Browning (Lisa) of Honolulu, HI; the Rev. Peter Browning (Melissa) of Irvine, CA; and Mr. John Browning (Tammy) of Atlanta, as well as 13 grandchildren. Edmond is survived by his brother, Robert Browning (Marylee) of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Ed and Patti Browning shared in a ministerial partnership from the beginning of their marriage. After Browning’s ordination, he served the Church of the Good Shepherd, Corpus Christi, from 1954-1956. From 1956-1959 he served as rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Eagle Pass, Texas. The Brownings entered into missionary service and were called to All Souls Church in Okinawa, from 1959-1963. From 1963-1965 the Brownings attended language school in Kobe, Japan, returning to Okinawa to serve at St. Michael’s Church in Oruku until 1968.
Browning’s episcopal ministry spanned 48 years. He was ordained the first missionary bishop of Okinawa in 1968. In 1971 he became the bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. In 1974, after 15 years abroad, he returned to the United States to work as the executive for National and World Mission at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. Elected bishop of the Diocese of Hawaii in 1976, the family lived there until Browning was elected presiding bishop.
Since retirement in 1997, Ed and Patti Browning have lived a quiet life in Oregon with their companion animals and with visits from family and friends, continuing to support the causes closest to their hearts.
Throughout his ministry Edmond Lee Browning opened the church to a deeper sense to the call of baptism as the “sacrament of inclusion” and the source of all authority for ministry. At great personal cost, as a prophetic pastor he challenged the church, world leaders, and all those with privilege to use their resources for the good of all. “I cannot imagine a question which would frighten the Holy Spirit away from us,” he wrote. “God is just not that small.”
— The Rev. Sheryl Kujawa Holbrook is author of Heart of a Pastor, A Life of Edmond Lee Browning.
Funeral Liturgies will be held on July 17 at 1 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Hood River, Oregon; and on July 19 at 2 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Oregon. A service is also planned at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Honolulu, Hawaii – date to be announced.
The family suggests that memorial contributions may be give to Friends of Sabeel – North America or Episcopal Relief & Development.